The Issue: The Moebius Strip Madness of ‘Silver Surfer’ #11
Welcome to The Issue, where we'll take a look at some of the strangest, most interesting and most distinctive single issue comic stories ever to grace the medium. You know the ones; silent issues, sideways issues, backwards issues; the comics that try to do something different with the form, and stand out from the series they belong to.
We're kicking off with a recent example, one that seems to have come from an alternate universe where the rules of the comics form are slightly different: Dan Slott and Mike Allred's Silver Surfer #11.
Silver Surfer #11 is an absolute masterclass in modern comics storytelling.
It contains not just one but four stories about a set of characters stuck in a time loop, in an issue that can be read entirely separately to the rest of the series. At the same time, it's building on the emotional arc of the preceding ten issues and setting up the stories that follow.
That's undeniably smart comics, but the reason we're talking about it today is the format. The issue twists those stories into a Möbius strip --- you know, that seemingly-physics-defying shape you probably made out of a strip of colored paper back in school. Looks kind of like a twisted hair scrunchie, or if someone sat on an infinity symbol? But, uh, made of comics panels.
Look, it's probably easier if I just show you:
For the sake of our sanity and the sheer loading time of this web page, I've cut it down to just three of the issue's double page spreads – there are actually eleven, forming a much larger loop – but hopefully you get the idea. There are two strips on each page, running counter to one another, so the story on the bottom of the page is upside down. At the middle knot, as everything gets sucked into a wormhole, the perspective switches to a different character and the whole book flips, so the top story is the one that's upside down. Reach the end and you have to do a U-turn, flip the book round again and read back to the beginning.
This format is used to put us firmly in the shoes of the Silver Surfer (probably those rubber shoes with the individual toes, given that he's a surfer) and the rest of the cast. Searching the galaxy for a planet where the fleet of refugee aliens they've recently rescued from Galactus will be safe, the Surfer and his travel companion Dawn are attacked by some inexplicably French spacemen, and find themselves stuck in a time loop.
That might all sound a little difficult to follow, but Slott and Allred keep it remarkably clear throughout. It helps that it's all reasonably familiar. The premise is Groundhog Day in space. Edge of Tomorrow with a naked, philosophizing chrome dude instead of Tom Cruise.
More importantly, the single-tier strip of panels should be accessible to anyone who's ever read a Garfield. To help keep it as clear and simple as possible, Allred even shapes the border of each panel into an arrow, making sure you're always pulled right through the story.
But keep following those arrows, and you'll be stuck going round and round forever, as trapped in the loop as any of the characters. It's a metaphor for not only the time loop, but also the current predicament of our heroes.
In order to repent for past sins --- namely playing maître d' to a planet-consuming space god --- the Surfer is trying to find a planet that can house six billion different alien species, each with their own needs and vulnerabilities. This quickly proves to be a Sisyphean task, only with a fleet of Allred-designed spaceships instead of a boulder, and thus far cooler.
Thing is, even if you've never time-travelled or served up dinner to a world eater, this feeling is probably one you've encountered in your own life at some point. A monotonous job, a relationship that goes round in circles, dealing with pretty much any kind of overly complicated form. It's a frustrating sensation, right?
And honestly, the first time I read Silver Surfer #11, it did leave me frustrated.
In part, that's just a sign that the effect is working properly, but it's also because I originally read this issue on Comixology. See, realizing that people were going to struggle with tipping their tablet or computer monitor upside-down to read the comic, Marvel completely overhauled the digital version.
Let me show you what I mean:
The two strips of panels of panels per page becomes just one, leaving half of the page empty. With infinite pages to play with, the loop is created simply by reprinting whole sections of the comic.
This creates an interesting effect all of its own. Where the print comic is crowded with images, running in different direction and angles, the digital version is full of empty space. With the backlight of a screen, this white space is enough to make you squint.
So, as you pick through a tight row of panels that you read ten minutes earlier, wondering if anything is actually different, it all starts to feel claustrophobic. And when the grand finale suddenly fills your screen with color and detail, in a double-page splash of the Surfer yelling, “WE SHALL BE FREE!”, it's hard not to feel like he's talking to you.
As I said, it's an interesting effect --- but it also robs the comic of its single greatest moment of invention. Because, to escape the endless loop of the print comic, you need to apply a little bit of your own ingenuity.
Luckily, someone in the comic is happy to help you figure it out. Existing in “the space outside of time, and the outside of space” --- the white space of the page --- the Never Queen looks the reader straight in the eye, and drops a great big hint: “Exert your free will, grab hold of all you accept as real, then reach beyond... Be the one who turns this page in the story of your life.”
This ties the issue into the wider theme of the series, which constantly presents characters and alien societies choosing to break free of their predestined path, but also it's a direct instruction to you the reader.
And, I beg you, if you can get your hands on a paper copy of this issue and haven't read it yet, please stop reading. When I finally got my hands on the print version, I already knew the solution. It was like picking up a paper on the train and finding someone's already filled in the sudoku for you.
Turn over the page from the loop, and you'll find this spread. Fold right down the middle of the Never Queen's symmetrical face and, doubled onto the adjacent pages, it'll reveal a new end to the story. Everyone who's ever read Scott McCloud talks about comics being an interactive medium, where the reader controls the pacing and decides what happens between panels. Silver Surfer #11 makes that literal.
If you want to be free, you're going to have to mess up this nice pristine comic. But in exchange, you get to save the Silver Surfer yourself. How cool is that? And how difficult must it have been to pull off?
At the risk of trapping us both in a time loop, I'll say it again: Silver Surfer #11 is an absolute masterclass in modern comics storytelling.